Teen/YA Heroines Part II: Stargirl

Contains spoilers. If you haven’t read Stargirl and Love, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, do so immediately.

Stargirl is my all-time favorite YA heroine, and I can’t see this changing. I admire her the most, I’m confounded by her the most, and I respect her the most. I would applaud her for nonconformity, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, and intellectual curiosity. I cannot list another female protagonist who is close to her, temperament-wise, especially when you compare her to the portrayal of some current female YA characters [either in series or in stand-alones], some of whom are far more cynical and bitchy than their adult counterparts.

Stargirl is a formerly homeschooled teenage girl who starts attending an Arizona high school. No one knows what to make of her. She strums a ukelele freely [even during lunch], wears homemade clothes, carries around a pet rat, treats everyone the same (kindly), and seems to have no innate understanding or respect for the rigidly set social hierarchy of the high school.

There are several characteristics of Stargirl’s which stand out: her selflessness; her compassion; her genuine originality; and her innocence. Obviously, these qualities show a lot of overlap. What other teen’s main hobby is doing nice [usually anonymous] things for other? She puts great care and effort into anonymously getting Leo a porcupine necktie for his birthday, and this is before she really knows him.

Yet her selflessness is looked upon with cynicism and distrust by the other students, who just haven’t been exposed to that level of generosity before. They don’t know what to make of it, so they laugh at her. She’s without guile – she eats alone at lunch at one point, and then walks around, looking at people, quite like a young child might. When she sings happy birthday to people, it’s not to make a name for herself, but because she feels a genuine need to do so. She’s driven by positive internal motivation, rather than by conformity.

When two teams play against each other in a sport, it confounds Stargirl that you can’t cheer for both teams. As Leo, her true love, tells us early on, “She had no friends, yet she was the friendliest person in school.” In spite of all the acts of kindness Stargirl performs for the other students, she is eventually ostracized and deeply hurt by their alienation of her. In some last ditch efforts, she even tries to fit in and be like them (dresses like them, talks like them, adopts their interests), but it doesn’t take, and they successfully drive her away by shunning her (and in Hillary Kimble’s case, abusing her). Conformity – 1; Stargirl – 0.

 

When we next see her in Love, Stargirl, she and her family have moved to Pennsylvania. Leo has no idea as to her whereabouts: she has kept them from him. Stargirl still yearns for Leo, but in her typical age-democratic way, she finds a small group of friends who seem to appreciate her for herself: Betty Lou, a home-bound agoraphobic; Dootsie, a 6-year old; Alvina, a younger, angry, hard-to-be-friends-with girl ; Perry, a teen boy with a ‘harem’ of admirers; and Charlie, a deaf elderly man who sits by his dead wife’s grave every day, no matter what the weather. She treat them all as her equal, and they learn to give her the same respect. Although not much happens ‘on the surface’ of Love, Stargirl, she is basically recovering and re-becoming herself again. She is rarely angry or bitter about how she was treated by others and by Leo, even though she has every right to be. She feels down, but she still reaches out to others (some of whom don’t make it easy) and shows them true kindness. Although she does at one point heroically enter a burning building in order to save people, it’s her small, regular, routine acts of heroic kindness which stayed with me. Stargirl remains true to her ideals (kindness, patience, gentleness), true to her friends, and true to herself.

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About Carey Hagan

I'm a reference librarian in Virginia and I do children's and YA [young adult] reader's advisory.
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